In Egypt, the real regime still has to fall

by Jerome Roos on July 5, 2013

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Egypt’s revolutionary process is a complicated convolution of people power and military co-optation. To succeed, it will have to take on the army anew.

Now that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been forced from power, one question appears to be burning on everyone’s lips: is this Egypt’s second revolution, or is it really just a coup d’étât? Anyone outside of Egypt who still pretends to have a straightforward answer to this question is either lying or deluding themselves. The truth is that periods of grave revolutionary upheaval never lend themselves to simplistic binary narratives. If anything, the answer is neither: this is neither a second revolution nor a coup d’étât. Why?

First of all, it’s not a second revolution because — as I pointed out at length in a recent essay — revolutions are not events but processes. In Egypt’s case, this process first revealed itself on January 25, 2011 and remains ongoing until today. For a major newspaper like The Guardian to write about “post-revolutionary” Egypt therefore seems bizarre; and note that The Guardian is far from alone in propagating this kind of widespread discourse. Indeed, the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian revolution only seems to have intensified over the past 2,5 years as various forces — the Muslim Brotherhood, the army, the US government — have sought to co-opt it.

Seen in this light, Egypt’s revolution has been marked by three main phases: the initial insurrection of January and February 2011 that toppled Mubarak; the second wave of protests that forced the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to finally call elections; and now the third uprising of June 30 — the “Rebellion” — that forced Morsi out of office. It is absolutely crucial not to underestimate the role of popular agency in these world-historic events. As I wrote earlier, none of this would have been possible without the power of the street.

But there is a major caveat here. While the Egyptian revolution surely constitutes one of the most epic insurrectionary episodes in recent history, the “material constitution” of Egyptian society has changed remarkably little since the overthrow of Mubarak. When the people of Egypt initially rose up in January 2011, they rebelled against a deeply entrenched and profoundly repressive military dictatorship that had deprived them of “bread, freedom and social justice” for as long as most people could remember. The main slogan in the first wave of protests unsurprisingly became: الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎ — the people demand the fall of the regime. Note the important point that the Arabic word for “regime” (nizam) is perhaps better translated as system, which indicates that this is not just about a specific group of privileged people but about a whole set of oppressive social structures. The people demand the downfall of this system.

In this sense, the system’s initial reaction was every bit as brutal as it was predictable: it simply tried to quash the revolt. But when it became self-evident that this approach wasn’t quite working, the true ruling class shifted strategies. The army’s top-brass recognized that to perpetuate its rule, or at least secure its economic interests and privileged political position, it would have to appease the masses. And so the military command, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi — Mubarak’s long-time Defense Minister and personal confidant, known in ruling circles as “Mubarak’s poodle” — simply turned on their former master and pushed him from power.

This led to the 15-month rule of the SCAF, which was supposed to be a transition period giving way to Egypt’s first democratic elections, but which was marked by continued mass mobilizations to save the revolution from the army’s incessant attempts to stall the revolutionary process and repress the ongoing protests. Belying its own pro-democratic rhetoric, the SCAF brutally cracked down on the protesters, killing hundreds and imprisoning, torturing and maiming thousands. During the second wave of revolt, as hundreds of thousands again amassed in Tahrir Square, the main slogan of the revolutionaries simply became: “down with military rule.”

By early 2012, the SCAF realized that its direct rule over society was badly affecting its carefully crafted mythology as a patriotic institution aligned with the goals of the revolution, potentially endangering its economic interests. At that point, it was happy to just leave politics behind and let some eager civilians take the blame. It was clear, however, that the only social force organized enough to take on such a responsibility was the Muslim Brotherhood. And so the army called elections, knowing full well that the Islamists would win, but recognizing just as well that it was in its own best interests to retreat to the wings and let elected politicians solve their mess. In fact, the army ascertained that the Brotherhood would win the elections, allowing its members to man the polling stations, count the ballots and beat up “troublemakers”.

And yet, even if it successfully managed to change the face of the regime by organizing the drafting of a new constitution and the country’s first “free and fair” elections, the military command never truly left power. Even before Morsi was elected president with 51% of the vote, both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood realized that they would have to make some kind of pact whereby the army would be allowed to preserve its economic empire and its privileged political position, while the Muslim Brotherhood would be allowed to fill the regime’s gaping vacuum of legitimacy by trying to establish an Islamist “cultural hegemony” in order to entrench the system ideologically. The fact that Morsi replaced some of the military’s top command did not alter that institutional fact.

This brings us to the second point: this was not a military coup d’étât. At least not in the ordinary sense of the word. After all, even if the Muslim Brotherhood did at times seek to directly confront the military’s political influence, the military’s top command remained one of the dominant political and economic players even after Egypt’s first free and fair elections. It never took over state power because it never truly relinquished it: after burning its fingers on a disastrous year of military rule, it deliberately entered into a coalition with the country’s biggest and oldest organized political force. The moment that force imploded, as a result of its own incompetence and arrogance, the army simply dumped it and replaced it with someone more of their liking — piggybacking off a wave of grassroots protest and some of the largest mobilizations in world history to further entrench its hegemony.

This has led to an extremely dangerous situation in which a majority of protesters has now come to see the army as an enforcer of the popular will and a defender of the people’s revolution because it sided with them in the struggle to overthrow the deeply unpopular Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the military command has carefully and skilfully preserved the position of social dominance it acquired over the course of the past six decades of military dictatorship. Mubarak was overthrown, but his authoritarian state was never truly dismantled. As an Egyptian activist told us in an email yesterday, by siding with the streets in the overthrow of Morsi, the army and the state security apparatus even managed to “whitewash” their own previous lies and crimes and now seem more popular and less vulnerable than ever.

So if this is neither a coup nor a second revolution, then what is it? Perhaps we should see the overthrow of Morsi as the third phase in an ongoing revolutionary process; a wave of rebellion that once again forced the army to make an extremely awkward move it would otherwise not have made. In that sense, it is both an affirmation of people power and a simultaneous co-optation of that people power by the constituted powers-that-be. If anything, this is yet another attempt to hijack the revolutionary process: the army already controlled the state, now it controls much of the streets too. After manoeuvring itself into virtually every imaginable position — from the revolution’s ultimate oppressor to its heroic savior — the military command now seems to be getting away with it. The question is: how much longer?

Will new elections truly be able to realize the revolution’s demands of bread, freedom and social justice? Or will it be just another front for the continued rule of a military elite that, aided by the United States and its own economic empire, continues to pull the levers of the political system and society as a whole? If the next government fails to bring stability and the economic situation deteriorates even further, forcing it to turn back to the IMF with its disastrous austerity measures and neoliberal reforms, who is to say that the people won’t return to the streets for a fourth wave of revolutionary rage? What will the army do then? Will the streets continue to buy their revolutionary rhetoric and promises of democracy? Will the anger remain neatly confined to the ballot box?

As Mark LeVine just put it in a column for Al Jazeera, “the Egyptian military stands in the way of revolution, and the revolutionaries will again have to take it on directly.” None of this is to belittle the incredible achievements the revolutionaries have secured so far, and it is obvious that activists the world over will continue to follow and support the struggle of the Egyptian people with amazement and the utmost respect, as a shining example of fearlessness and perseverance that inspires us all. But it does mean that “free and fair” elections alone may not be enough to still the people’s immense hunger for bread, freedom and social justice. It may mean that the biggest stand-off is yet to come. And it certainly means that this revolution is far from over yet.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

jkelvynrichards July 6, 2013 at 08:13

Jerome,
I may be deluded, but I am not a liar.
Six days into July, and it seems that everything has changed, and everything is the same.
A number of commentators have tended to regard the protests and marches on the streets and in the squares of Cairo and Alexandria as the development of democracy in Egypt. But democracy depends upon more than marching and shouting. In fact, July 4 2013 witnessed the reassertion of military rule in Egypt, [associated with the support of the USA.]
The previous four days of street protests had not opened the door to rule by the peoples. The protests had totally weakened President Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and enabled the military forces to capture and imprison the legally elected president and his key allies. The mass street protests created a vacuum into which the Armed Forces moved rapidly to organize a peaceful coup d’etat, and re-establish military rule. Egypt is a military state. It has the largest armed forces in Africa.
Egypt has been a satellite state of the USA since the Camp David Peace Treaty of 1979. The USA has provided military aid to Egypt. This aid has been up to $4 billion a year for a decade, and enabled Egypt to purchase tanks, combat aircraft, support weapons, along with technical expertise. The latest report from SIPRI indicates that in 2012, Egypt spent 6.5% of GDP on military equipment to make it the 11th largest armed force in the world.

Whatever happens in public, no matter how many marches took place, political power in Egypt lies with the military forces……the Army….. the Air force……the Navy…..as well as the police forces and security forces. The military did not approve of the rule of Morsi and have used the protests as the means to destroy democracy. During July 4 the military leaders have supervised the initiation of a new President of their choosing, and a new cabinet. Their efforts have been cheered on by protestors in the squares and streets of central Cairo. The Army has set up a ‘technocrat government’. It is organized by those who are considered by the Armed Forces to be best qualified to rule the country. Egypt is no longer a democracy in which the electorate voted for president and representatives. It is a military bureaucracy.
Surprisingly, the military coup has been welcomed by the USA, the UK, the EU.
What we do not know is what the people who voted for Morsi will do. How will they react to the dismissal of their President? They have shown by their interviews on the media that they consider their votes a waste of time in the face of military action. The Egyptian military worked carefully to identify with the millions of protesters in Cairo. There was no attempt to attack the protesters. They operated in the background, providing tacit approval for them. The Military leaders wanted to be cheered by the protesters. Once Morsi asserted that he was not going to listen to any of the protesters, he was caught in a trap, ready to be taken by the Army. The mass protests provided a door for the military to assume power as a ‘saviour’! not as a devil.

What about the implications of the coup in Egypt for the stability of the rule of various governments with large Armed forces. For example, what if the Armed Forces of the USA, the countries of the EU, Russia, China. Japan, UK, any country in the world, decided that it was necessary to get rid of their present government? What would happen?

In June 2013, Egypt was ruled by the first Muslim President, elected freely and fairly by the majority of the electorate. In July 2013, the vote of the majority had been overturned and replaced by a military junta.
So we have to confront the reality that the mass protests of the last few years, or what has been called ‘the Arab Spring’, did not have a mandate nor any stated manifesto and in fact were anti-democratic.
The protests enabled the expression of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood;
And at the same time, expressed support for the Muslim Brotherhood;
supported Morsi as president;
rejected Morsi;
promoted the assertion of military power and welcomed the coup d’etat; and their control by the USA;
cheered the removal of the elected government;
allowed the expression of sexual discrimination, and defended attacks on, and rape of women by men in public demonstration;
the protests can be seen as the assertion of male dominance;
men using their ‘weapons’ to keep women in their place.

It is important to recognize that mass gatherings are not necessarily intended to express ideal objectives. They often demand a return to the old ways! From the evidence of the events in Egypt, one could argue that the mass protests were intended to reinstate a military junta; support the USA; eliminate any Muslim principles in government; assert the position of men in society; deny the modernization of social behaviours. All these contradictions will be played out over the next years!

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jkelvynrichards July 9, 2013 at 12:02

It is now July 9th.
We do know what the supporters of Morsi will do.
Their actions reveal the complexity of the situation. The supporters of Morsi were the voters for Morsi and openly express their support for democracy. They demand that their votes are recognised. Many are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and are actively pursuing the imposition of Sharia Law. So it seems the Muslim Brotherhood are the supporters of electoral democracy. They declare that they will demonstrate until Morsi is reinstated. They assert that they will demonstrate until they die! They despise the coup by the Army and will act to oppose the Army until they go back to barracks. They announce that the Armed forces are the opponents of democracy. The Morsi voters are camped out on the streets determined to uphold their votes. The leaders of the Armed Forces declare that they support the demonstrations of the millions of people, and have not enacted a coup d’etat. Is Egypt a wonderland ? a world of mirrors?

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John Spritzler July 6, 2013 at 15:33

As much as I would love to say that events in Egypt recently (the military “ousting” President Morsi, to the cheers of huge numbers of Egyptians demonstrating and calling for his ouster) are an example of the democratic revolution I advocate (in Thinking about Revolution on my website), by the means I envision (soldiers going over to the side of the people’s revolutionary movement), I cannot say it; it’s just not true.

The power in Egypt remains in the hands of those who want society to be unequal and based on capitalism. The rank and file soldiers, to my knowledge, have not refused orders from the top military generals, but have in fact obeyed those orders. The top military generals are not only the commanders of the military but, somewhat unique to Egypt, are also among the nation’s top capitalists, owning key industries not related to military matters, and exploiting the labor of rank and file soldiers among others.

The capitalist class has ruled over the masses in various ways in the past, and has been forced to use some “trial and error” since 2011 to remain in control. A ruling class needs a modicum of legitimacy among a critical mass of the population in order for them–the wealthy few–to control the many–the masses of have-nots.

There are different ways of achieving legitimacy for the few to rule the many. One way is to use politicians who win an election. Another way is to use theocratic (will of God) means to legitimize rule by religious leaders. Another way is to use the “We are the only ones who can establish law and order and safety,” which is what some military dictatorships rely upon.

The ruling class in Egypt is trying to find a method that works and is sustainable, and it is having some trouble, because lots of Egyptians are willing and able to express their discontent when they are discontented, and create instability that prevents the status quo from being sustainable.

But however the chips may land, it ain’t a democratic revolution unless the people who are opposed to class inequality and opposed to capitalism and opposed to the hierarchical principle (the principle that one must obey the central government) are on top, and are shaping society by the values of equality and mutual aid. I don’t see that happening in Egypt, unfortunately.

Being against the Muslim Brotherhood is not the same as being for democratic revolution. Egypt’s military leaders are very consciously taking advantage of this fact to leverage popular discontent at the Muslim Brotherhood to support for the military generals and their rule–to enforce inequality and capitalism! At the same time, being against a military dictatorship is not the same thing as being for democratic revolution either: The Muslim Brotherhood is against a military dictatorship but they are equally for inequality and capitalism and obedience to the central government.

There are some people (probably a small number) who are explicitly advocating essentially democratic revolution, and whose writings we have seen recently. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Egyptians are IMPLICITLY for democratic revolution, in the sense that their values as expressed by their personal actions in everyday life are those of democratic revolution.

The implicit support for democratic revolution needs to be made explicit. It is a task that will take time, here and around the world. To make progress in this task, to do things that advance it, requires knowing the difference between this task and what people with very different goals are doing. There are people in Egypt, some with large followings, who have very different goals from democratic revolution: the generals and capitalists and Muslim Brotherhood, of course, but also popular leaders who frame the goal in ways that do not challenge class inequality or capitalism or obedience to a central government. The latter use nationalism and talk about how the central government should represent “all Egyptians,” as if a government can represent both the exploiters and the exploited, the ones who want inequality and the ones who don’t. They use the language of nationalism and liberal “democracy” and “rule of law” to divert people’s attention from the goals of equality and mutual aid and to make people feel they must obey a central government that is pro-capitalist and enforces inequality.

Perhaps a movement that is explicitly for democratic revolution–egalitarianism–will emerge from the events in Egypt. Perhaps it is there already and just not visible to me. I hope so. If and when it is visible to us, we should support it as best we can. But let’s not celebrate movements with very different goals, just because a lot of people are involved. The masses in Tahir Square are apparently cheering the generals whom they cursed in 2011. This shows there is a great deal of confusion among the masses, which is being taken advantage of by the elites. We should try to avoid being confused, ourselves, and do what we can to help others not be confused. The key is to keep in mind what our goals are, and to judge others by whether their goals are ours or not.

The most important way for us to support Egyptians who want a democratic revolution is to work for that goal in our own countries.

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Cornet Joyce July 6, 2013 at 21:45

Perhaps the first Egyptian Revolution occurred before Mr Roos’s senior prom.
Here’s wikipedia on the results if that Revolution:

“Egypt’s economy grew at an average rate of 9% per annum for almost a decade. The share of manufacturing to Egypt’s GDP rose from around 14% in the late 1940s to 35% by the early 1970s.”

“The original revolutionaries wanted an end to British occupation but did not have a unified ideology or plan for Egypt. One issue that was agreed on and acted quickly on was land reform. Less than six percent of Egypt’s population owned more than 65% of the land in Egypt, while at the top and less than 0.5% of Egyptians owned more than one-third of all fertile land. The process of land reform began on September 11, 1952, when (among many provisions) a law prohibited ownership of more than 200 feddans of land (840,000 sq meters); limited the rental rate for land; established cooperatives for farmers; minimum wages, etc.

During the presidency of Nasser, cultivated land in Egypt increased by almost a third (an achievement that had reportedly eluded Egyptians for more than a millennium).
“The combination of the land-reform program and the creation of the public sector in Egypt resulted in around 75% of Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) being transferred from the hands of the country’s rich either to the state or to millions of small owners.”

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